MIDWEST CITY — When Calvin Reed saw the rows of leafy, green bushes shrivel in the July heat, he knew it was time to start digging.
Reed, 45, gripped his shovel and foraged the soil for potatoes Friday, hardly stopping for a break in the shade. He enjoys the chance for an honest day's work, he said.
“I'd pick doing this to being inside any day. They have to come and tell me to take a break,” Reed said.
He woke up with the sun to catch a van that took him and nine other inmates from the Oklahoma County jail to a field sprawling with crops next to the sheriff's office substation in Midwest City.
The inmates work the field through a garden program started by Sheriff John Whetsel three years ago.
The project aims to cut down food costs at the county jail, while offering inmates the chance to learn about gardening and shave time off their sentences.
“It keeps inmates busy, teaches them a trade and helps them work with their own hands to grow things,” Whetsel said.
After a health clearance check, nonviolent offenders can apply to the garden program, Whetsel said. Most are in jail on misdemeanor charges.
For some inmates, each day spent working outside in the plant beds cuts 2.5 days off their sentence, Capt. Harry Falter said.
The project has two harvests per year, one in the spring and fall.
Other than potatoes, inmates grow onions, carrots, beets and lettuce. It all is used in the jail's kitchen.
“They work hard at it,” Falter said. “As they dig the potatoes up, they actually get to see and touch what they've done.”
The jail provides three meals a day to about 2,500 inmates. That pushes annual food costs well over $2 million, Whetsel said.
When the land for the garden program was purchased from Tinker Air Force Base in 2004, Whetsel knew it would eventually yield big savings, he said.
The sheriff estimates the crops harvested this year will save the jail $35,000 in food expenses.
“Whatever we produce in these gardens is taken down to the jail and will be eaten by the inmates,” Whetsel said. “So far, it's been an overwhelming success.”
And the plan is to keep adding more plants and crops each season.
Thanks to rainy weather and the hard work of the inmates, they are expecting their biggest harvest this year, Falter said.
Falter remembers what the nine garden beds looked like before they cultivated the land in 2011.
“We spent the first year of the program tilling the weedy field, prepping it for planting,” he said.
Inmates passed the second year experimenting with what crops worked best and enjoyed a small harvest.
After their 500 potato plants posted a strong showing despite last summer's drought, inmates decided to plant 2,600 plants this year.
The field coughed red and brown dust under their tools Friday as the workers dug, pounded and raked the soil for their misshapen nuggets.
Even they were surprised by the abundance of pale potatoes buried in the dirt.
“This garden is paying off probably the biggest,” Reed said. “We count each row and try to figure out which one will produce the most.”
‘Sense of purpose'
Since most of the participants are in custody on misdemeanor charges, the 120 days stretching between seedtime and harvest often surpasses their time in jail.
The average inmate works about a month in the gardens, making for a high turnover rate week-to-week.
Since the garden had its first harvest last year, more than 100 inmates have come through the program, Falter said.
“These folks get out here, and they buy into the project. It gives them a sense of purpose,” Falter said. “After they're out, we've had people who want to come back to help with harvest because they're so involved in the project.”
Reed has been working in the garden since July 2. He anticipates being released from jail Saturday.
He thinks about planting his own produce once he's home and teaching his three girls about gardening.
Learning how to garden has helped his days pass faster. Reed said he goes to bed happy to feel tired from hard work in the sun.
“At the end of the day, it makes you feel like you did something, like you made a difference,” Reed said. “That's why I love coming out here.”